WASHINGTON is living up to its reputation for breaking Northern Irish taboos. This week for the first time unionist and Sinn Fein leaders attend the same social function. And for the first time since the end of the IRA ceasefire, British and Irish ministers will mix socially with Mr Gerry Adams.
After initially refusing an invitation to the prestigious. American Ireland Fund dinner because of the presence of the Sinn Fein leader, the UUP leader, Mr David Trimble, told the organisers yesterday he had changed his mind.
By staying away the unionists would have isolated themselves from the biggest political social event of St Patrick's week in Washington.
The First Lady, Mrs Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Taoiseach, Mr Bruton, the NI economy minister, Baroness Denton, and the British Labour Party spokeswoman on Northern Ireland, Ms Mo Mowlam, will also attend the dinner, at which an Adams supporter, Congressman Ben Gilman, will receive a peace award.
Mr Adams is attending as a guest of the Dunfey brothers of the New England Circle, who are strong supporters of the fund. The SDLP and Alliance leaders, Mr John Hume and Dr John Alderdice, will be there as part of a large Northern Ireland delegation.
Mr Paul Quinn, one of the organisers of the dinner, said yesterday: "The decision of Bob and Jack Dunfey to invite Mr Adams is based on the premise that he is in a position to get the peace process back on track."
He said he had given an undertaking to Mr Trimble and his companions. Mr John Taylor MP and the party secretary, Mr Jeffrey Donaldson, that they would not be placed near the Sinn Fein leader at the function.
For many diners the seating arrangements will be more important than the fare itself. The Irish, British and US governments are committed to avoiding top level contacts with Mr Adams at present.
A British embassy spokesman said that the British guests were aware of the presence of Mr Adams, but that there would be 1,000 other people there, and contact could easily be avoided.
However interesting symbolically the dinner might be, the more important event for Mr Adams, who arrived in the United States yesterday for a five day visit, is a projected meeting with Ms Nancy Soderberg of the National Security Council.
While he is barred from the White House, a meeting "off campus" is expected tomorrow. Mr Trimble, Mr Hume and Dr Alderdice will have separate meetings in the White House.
Administration sources say they are hopeful a ceasefire can be restored before all party talks due to start on June 10th. Officials say that they continue to regard Mr Adams as crucial to delivering a new ceasefire.
Rejecting arguments that the IRA could be equated with Hamas, which have been used by conservative critics of the President, an official said: "Hamas is trying to destroy a peace process; the IRA is trying to get into one."
Mr Adams emphasised on arrival yesterday that he is striving to restore the ceasefire. He said yesterday: "We worked for peace before a cessation and during a cessation and we are working for peace since the cessation."
The Sinn Fein leader addressed a peace rally in the Bronx last night. He will be in Washington tomorrow. He cancelled a breakfast press conference on Friday to fly back to New York for meetings.
President Clinton said in an interview on CBS television yesterday that he hoped the IRA would renew its ceasefire in time for Sinn Fein to take part in the all party talks.
"We hope that the conditions under which some sort of referendum would be held would be sufficient to get all the parties to agree so that the Sinn Fein could participate because the ceasefire had been reinstated, and so, hopefully, the others would participate as well," Mr Clinton said.
CBS quoted White House officials as saying Mr Clinton would like to go back to Ireland, if there was a peace agreement.
Mr Clinton was honoured on Monday evening as "Irish American of the Year" by his Irish America magazine, which is published by Mr Niall O'Dowd. With Senator Edward Kennedy and the US ambassador to Ireland, Mrs Jean Kennedy Smith, beside him, Mr Clinton said: "We must not allow those who have been hardened by the past to hijack the future of the children of Northern Ireland."
The mood of the several hundred Irish Americans at the function in the Plaza Hotel was summed up by the applause which greeted entertainer Malachy McCourt when he toasted Mr Clinton saying they wanted: "Peace, peace, peace and peace."
Vice President Al Gore will attend Speaker Newt Gingrich's St Patrick's lunch tomorrow, to which the Taoiseach and the NI party leaders, except Mr Adams, have been invited.